Thursday, May 10, 2018

Quick Sips - Beneath Ceaseless Skies #250 (part 2)

The second half of Beneath Ceaseless Skies’ special 250th anniversary issue is out, and it’s definitely got a mystery feel to it. Which is great, because I’m a particular fan of mysteries, and these two take very strange situations and place them into second worlds full of magic and danger, intrigue and trauma. These are stories of people trying to find ways to live with their pasts, to live with the weight of who they are and what they want to become. They are fun but not without their shadows, and not without the presence of death. But they are also about justice, and finding solutions to problems that would otherwise be much worth. So let’s dig in! [as a side note, the final story of the issue marks my 3000th individual review on Quick Sip Reviews, so cheers to that!]

Art by Jereme Peabody

“An Account of the Madness of the Magistrate, Chengdhu Village” by Richard Parks (7285 words)

No Spoilers: Jing, Mei Li, and Pan Bao are back for another installment in their ongoing journey to maintain their reputations and, for Mei Li, to perhaps become human. This episode finds them investigating the strange behavior of a minister, who turns out to be something much different than he appears. Underneath that, though, the story seems to me to be about appearances and true natures, about coercion and consent. For Mei Li, being human is something that both does and doesn’t come naturally. It’s how she feels, and yet it’s not easy to have one’s body pushing against the direction one wants to go. In her case, she must consciously suppress transforming into a serpent, and it causes some question as to what her true nature is. Is it the serpent that she rejects but isn’t free of, or is it the human she wants but still doesn’t fit completely within? More subdued and less action-focused as some of the others in the series, this one still moves the characters along and further explores the features and themes of the setting.
Keywords: Spirits, Foxes, Magic, Impersonation, Funerals, Family
Review: This setting continues to be a fun one to return to, even as the conflict here isn’t quite as dramatic as some of the other stories has been. Each piece brings up a new mystery to solve, though, and that this one doesn’t find it’s resolution at the point of a blade is an interesting and fitting move. After all, for people who don’t particularly like to resort to violence, it often finds them, and it’s a nice change of pace for things to develop entirely without battle. Instead, things are handled with a bit more of an eye toward skins and appearances. The fox is trapped in his current form, unable to go back, and the effect is that he wants a release from it all. In some ways he’s experiencing a situation mirroring Mei Li’s, because she _wants_ to be a human but must fight against the urge to revert to serpent. It might actually seem _nice_ to have the problem this fox has, and I like that that kinda becomes the point. That when looking at who is lucky and who is suffering, one can’t just look at the actual things that are happening. Because what might be a blessing to one person can be a curse to someone else and the issue normally is one of consent. Mei Li wants to be a human, and so something that would help her to achieve that is good. But because the fox doesn’t want to be human, that same thing is a violation. Is a wrong that they have t address. The thing itself is neither good nor bad, but rather has to be taken in context of the situation. Which is always the case. And it’s still a fun story with a lot of great lines and a charming voice. A delightful read!

“Silence in Blue Glass” by Margaret Ronald (8175 words)

No Spoilers: Arthur Swift is a veteran of a losing war that involved a lot of messed up magic. After a lengthy recovery, he’s trying to put a life together for himself when he’s invited by his brother to a dinner party. The invitation itself is strange, coming after not having seen his brother in some time, but more strange is the party itself, which takes a definite turn for the worse when one of the guests ends up dead. The piece is for me a mystery at heart, though the deeper mystery has nothing to do with the murder and everything to with Arthur and his brother. Clever, tightly paced, and revealing an interesting a living world, the story delivers for fans of fantasy and mystery alike, and for fans of both, it’s a wonderful romp with a powerful and lingering feel to it. I definitely want more!
Keywords: Murder, Trauma, Brothers, Business Deals, Dinner Parties
Review: I do hope this is the start of a series of stories, because I love me some fantasy mysteries. It does stand nicely alone, though, introducing a city that is recovering from losing a war, that is making many adjustments because of displaced populations moving in, including magical races that don’t seem like they’ve mingled much with humans. It’s also a city with a population of veterans who have been damaged by the war and among those is Arthur, who comes across as wounded but rather stoic and upstanding. Most of the story is actual just setting up the situation and the characters, with the murder itself happening well past the halfway mark and the solving of the mystery handled mostly not by Arthur. Indeed, I like that Arthur here is much more the Watson than anything, competent but not exactly the greatest analytical mind. But he’s a good person, and that helps to keep things from becoming worse than they already are. The actual detection comes from Mieni, a kobold. It’s her skills that really push the mystery toward being solved, because there’s no shortage of suspects. And there’s a few things going on that weren’t obvious at first, meaning there were levels of guilt going on, which I always appreciate. Mieni and Arthur make a good team, though, and together they get to the bottom of the situation, which is complicated and dark and nicely handled. And there’s just something about taking a more Victorian style murder mystery (limited cast, limited scene) and placing it into this second world fantasy with a backdrop of war and magic. It gives it a vaguely post WWI feel for me, but different enough that I want to know more, want to explore the world and find out what’s happening. Arthur is a decent viewpoint, though for my tastes more because he’s the frame through which to view more interesting characters, but he’s not boring by any means. The piece as a whole just checks a lot of the right boxes for things I like, and makes for a very good read that you should definitely check out!


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